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When Camping Comes With a Skyline View

NEW YORK — It was opening weekend for glamping on Governors Island, and things were a bit rocky. First, there were the rocks. Thanks to weeks of alternating torrential rain and baking sun, the grass hadn’t come in, creating a lunar landscape around the tents. Then the liquor license hadn’t come through, leaving the beautiful new wooden bar high and dry. Finally, there was the throbbing bass of house music coming from the raucous Pinknic rosé festival on an adjacent plot of land.

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When Camping Comes With a Skyline View
Helene Stapinski
, New York Times

NEW YORK — It was opening weekend for glamping on Governors Island, and things were a bit rocky. First, there were the rocks. Thanks to weeks of alternating torrential rain and baking sun, the grass hadn’t come in, creating a lunar landscape around the tents. Then the liquor license hadn’t come through, leaving the beautiful new wooden bar high and dry. Finally, there was the throbbing bass of house music coming from the raucous Pinknic rosé festival on an adjacent plot of land.

But once the music stopped at 9:30 and the blazing sun dipped behind the Jersey City skyline, the magic began.

Thousands of lights in lower Manhattan twinkled like constellations, and the glowing green Statue of Liberty waved goodbye as hordes of wine-buzzed, pastel-clad revelers raced for the last ferry home.

The glampers were alone.

“The views are fantastic,” said Damon Willmott, a Park Sloper who had booked two tents for his family of four. “It’s great somebody’s done this in New York.” The Willmotts go camping often, but driving outside the city and packing up all that gear adds a level of difficulty and stress. After the eight-minute ferry ride to their campsite, they simply plopped down their bags, turned off their phones and played a game of Scrabble. Willmott smiled and nodded. “It felt good to disconnect.”

Joining the Willmotts at Collective Retreats on the island’s south end were scores of other campers in 37 tents ranging in price from $220 to $650 ($75 tents are available on Tuesday nights, and some tents go for as much as $850, depending on demand). Some were roasting marshmallows in the fire pit, some eating $120 prix fixe meals in the permanent Three Peaks lodge; others played beanbag toss.

As it grew later, glampers wandered off to bed (not sleeping bags, but actual beds), and their white tents lit up one by one, triangles incandescent against the dark harbor. The crowd was diverse: a family of eight from Pennsylvania whose matriarch had grown up on Governors Island as an Army brat; a lesbian couple both originally from New Jersey who had never camped before; another couple from Montreal. But most were from New York City.

“It’s a nice way to explore a part of the city you might not otherwise visit,” said Dawn Hood, a first-time camper from Inwood. “I’m always looking to get into something new.” Even if that something new is just plain nature.

There was birdsong in the air, and the gentle lapping of the waves, but there was no mistaking this for a camp in the Adirondacks. Every 15 minutes the Staten Island Ferry glided by, and airplanes descended steadily toward Newark Airport. It wasn’t perfect nature, but for Hood and the other glampers, it was enough to let them slip into a collective state of solitude.

Setting up camp on the edges of the city itself or just outside its limits, New Yorkers are seeking a way out. Looking to escape their screens, traffic, messed-up subways, their bosses and national politics, many are finding solace in a nearby tent or cabin.

According to a report by Kampgrounds of America, 2.6 million more U.S. households camped last year than in 2016. A major reason was to relieve stress. Nearly all millennials surveyed (93 percent) said they would like to try camping this year, many gravitating toward glamping.

New Yorkers are no different. Those who might never have camped five years ago are heading into the wild. But this time with ready-made tents with beds inside.

Hard-core campers may scoff at glamping (“glamour camping,” that is, or wimping, as it’s sometimes called), and even glamping outfitters dislike the term. But most people agree getting back to nature — no matter how comfortable — is better than not going at all. Recent studies in Finland show that walking as little as 20 minutes in the woods helps significantly reduce stress. Forest bathing, popular in Japan, has been known to reduce stress as well and has been catching on here and in other countries.

“Whatever’s going to help you commune with nature and have a great experience, I’m all for it,” said Kevin Rosenberg, who runs Gear to Go Outfitters, an online equipment-rental and guide service.

Rosenberg, who spent years in the military, has extensive survival training and employs veterans as guides, does not glamp. When he camps, he goes deep into the wilderness without an air mattress or a stove. But he doesn’t look down on the glampers.

“Protecting the environment is very important to me,” said Rosenberg, who once ran his company out of a Brooklyn storefront but now lives upstate. “The more people bond with nature, the more they want to protect it. Whatever form it takes, it’s fine with me as long as what they’re doing is responsible. You might as well be comfortable and enjoy it.”

A number of New York companies have recently emerged to make the trek into the outdoors as seamless as possible: Collective Retreats, Tentrr, Getaway and Terra Glamping all provide cushy accommodations to help a growing wave of indoorsy people become outdoorsy.

Tentrr, for instance, was created with the New York apartment dweller in mind. “The person who doesn’t want to bring equipment, wants an amazing outdoor experience but doesn’t really know where to go,” said Baxter Townsend, public relations director at the company.

Mike D’Agostino, a former investment banker who founded Tentrr three years ago after a series of disastrous personal camping trips, has it down to a science. Potential campers visit the website, note a series of preferences (for example: hike in, views, forest, fishing) and are matched with possible sites and hosts outside the city.

Each campsite — they’re all on private land — is equipped with a durable canvas tent on a raised platform with a memory foam mattress, a Brazilian hardwood table, a camp box for dry storage and benches. A camp toilet, Adirondack chairs, a fire ring, sun shower and 24/7 customer service are part of the package, which averages around $144 a night. For D’Agostino, the lightning-bolt moment came on a weekend camping trip with his wife at Stokes State Forest in New Jersey, crowded together with dozens of other campers.

“We were literally across the car track from 40 people having a Wiccan full-moon party dressed in these white robes,” he said. At one point, a nude woman claiming to have seen a UFO ran through their campsite. “We thought, we have to get out of here.” They left early the next morning to head back to Manhattan and saw a beautiful farm on the side of the road. “I said to my wife, ‘Imagine if we could go camping there.’ ”

Cue the lightning bolt.

Tentrr has 500 campsites throughout the Northeast, many on struggling farms that can use the extra income. (The company takes a 20 percent commission on every campsite reserved.)

Nearly half those using the service have never been camping before, D’Agostino said. But even experienced campers have taken to Tentrr.

Kevin Simonson, a Brooklynite who runs a digital marketing firm, has hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and experienced his fair share of backcountry camping. His girlfriend, Katie Kapler, however, had never been camping, and Simonson didn’t want to scare her off.

“I looked at Tentrr as training wheels,” said Kapler, the founder of CourseHorse, an internet marketplace for classes. The couple have now used Tentrr three times — with their dog, Ollie, who had never been off leash before and has now encountered deer up close. “He was like, ‘What is this sensation? Oh, it’s freedom!'” Kapler said. Even the most serious campers have to start somewhere. Growing up on Long Island, Gear to Go’s Rosenberg never hiked or camped — nor had anyone he knew. It wasn’t until he joined the ROTC that he slept under the stars for the first time.

His motto is never to sell anything to a camper that is unnecessary, like a $3 enamel camping mug with a new logo on it that sells for $20, or a “repurposed antique” hatchet with a freshly painted handle at double the price of a regular hatchet.

He said he finds it amusing that so many young men feel the need to take a hatchet camping. “I’ve never even carried a hatchet into the woods,” he said, laughing. “But God bless them.”

The cliché of the bearded urban lumberjack throwing hatchets in a bar instead of darts may come from a more ominous place than simple trendiness. Zach Denes, manager of Hatchet Outdoor Supply Co. in Brooklyn, said he believes the New York City camping bug is spreading thanks to President Donald Trump’s stance on national parks, his push for more mining and drilling and concessions to polluting corporations.

“I think it’s a backlash,” Denes said. “It’s becoming much more hip to camp, to hike, especially around here in Brooklyn. Our current administration is boosting that for everybody.”

There are plenty of camping options around the city. There is Terra Glamping, an upscale glamping company that’s not afraid to use the G-word.

It was one of two pilot glamping programs at Fort Tilden in the Rockaways and is one of several vendors submitting proposals to return next summer. The company is also considering glamping programs at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and at Coney Island. “We can set our tents up anywhere,” said Rebecca Martin, the company’s founder. Most are up in Kingston at the Hutton Brickyards on the Hudson, and start at $250 a night.

Amenities include memory foam mattresses, down comforters, lanterns, Turkish towels and robes, luxury bath products — and pastries in the morning.

“Personally I hate camping and getting in a sleeping bag on the ground,” Martin said.

Collective Governors Island, one of the higher-end glamping experiences in the area, offers private bathrooms as big as a Manhattan apartment, custom-made furniture, 1,500-thread-count sheets, housekeeping and three meals a day. Camp Rockaway offered a no-frills glamping experience at Fort Tilden in Queens last autumn; it will be setting up a dozen tents this year in the courtyard of the art deco Riis Bathhouse in Rockaway through Halloween. Though prices at that site hover around $200 a night, the company is also applying for space at Fort Tilden again, to set up lower-end accommodations starting at $49.

“We’re trying to take the glam out of glamping,” said Kent Johnson, who runs the company. He said the big selling point was the communal campfire, where people from all walks of life can roast marshmallows and chat. “It’s really an antidote to cellphone addiction.”

Not all back-to-nature experiences have to do with spending time with other people. A couple of years ago, a Harvard Business School graduate named Jon Staff was growing weary of the internet startup life. He and his friend Pete Davis were seeking an escape from their hectic lives in Boston.

“We were tired of the city, tired of email, our friends, of everything,” said Staff, who now lives in Carroll Gardens. “We were burned out and wanted to go to the woods. We couldn’t afford a vacation far away and thought maybe we could build a tiny house and stick it in the woods where we could escape.” Having grown up in Minnesota, where small cabins are common, Staff didn’t think it was exactly a new concept. But the personal escape soon became his latest startup — Getaway.

The company builds modern-looking one-room cabins, typically around 160 square feet, with a lock box for cellphones, as well as a larder of basic provisions like pasta, sauce and popcorn. There’s also a list of things to do, like watch the constellations slowly turn. There’s a comfortable bed, a stove and running water, a fire pit and a few books to read.

All the houses have landlines for emergencies, but guests have used the phones in less desperate situations. “We would get all these calls,” Staff said. “'We got in the house. It’s beautiful. Can you please send someone over to make the campfire?'” So Getaway now provides step-by-step instructions for starting a fire.

Getaway has 75 tiny houses in the Northeast, outside New York, Boston and Washington. Staff said he got a letter recently from a woman who hated her job, whose husband hated his job, who said she cried a lot. Two days in the tiny house, she said, had helped them escape their worries.

“We’re not solving that problem, and we don’t pretend to,” Staff said. “But the idea is that you can literally pull the rip cord and go to the woods and not have to think about anything.”

At the moment there are 13 Getaway houses outside New York, all in the Catskills, but Staff is working on expanding. Last summer, Getaway took part in a pilot project at Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth, setting up three houses that were all booked.

The National Park Service, which runs Fort Wadsworth, said it is expanding the offerings for campers to try to appeal to all kinds of visitors. The tiny Getaway houses were set up on USS North Carolina Road, at the foot of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, amid black locust trees, with beach access and a view of the harbor. Offerings this coming summer might include tiny houses again, tents or glamping, said Emina Sendich, deputy superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area. “The public doesn’t realize what a gem this place is,” she said. On a recent visit, humans were joined by a possum, a woodpecker, deer and a woodchuck.

“I’ve spent the night down here, and you really do feel like you’re out there and you’re camping,” she said. “You’ve got the campfire going. You’re barbecuing. You’ve got your family with you.”

Fort Wadsworth is part of Gateway National Park, which also includes Fort Tilden, as well as Sandy Hook in New Jersey and Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. Camping has been permitted at Fort Wadsworth since 2012, and regular campsites can be reserved for $30 a night. They attract international tourists looking for affordable travel options as well as first-time campers who grew up in New York City.

“We get lots of local people camping,” said Brian Feeney, the park’s Staten Island unit manager. “One woman said to me, ‘It’s my first time, so if it doesn’t work out I’m going home tonight.'” He smiled and shrugged, staring out at New York Harbor, the skyline in the distance. “You can’t do that at Yosemite.”

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